Saturday, May 18, 2024

Not My Race Race Report

I run with Achilles International, guiding weekly runs and the occasional race for athletes with physical or cognitive challenges. For our chapter, we are doing mostly shorter runs and road races. The bigger city chapters, particularly on the East Coast, have athletes who are doing a lot of longer races but we are who we are. I love it, and its one of my favorite parts of my week. 

Several weeks ago, we got a call from an athlete from Texas who has a visual impairment. He asked if we might be willing to find some guides for him for a 55 mile trail race he registered for. Eight of us pulled together and said we'd figure it out. 

Fortunately, the heads of our chapters are ultra runners, because we quickly realized the course started in Manitou Springs, ran through Garden of the Gods, up Rampart Range Road to Rampart Reservoir, around the reservoir, and back down... and the gate to the Road was still locked, so there was no switching out runners for 18 mile stretches of road. The pros took those, and a partner and I were assigned half of the reservoir. 

We met up with Christian, a 29-year-old former collegiate swimmer running his first race of this distance, on Friday night. Christian has total blindness in one eye, and about 20% vision in the other. He told us this means he can see shapes from the one eye, but not details, and has no depth perception. He's also built like a swimmer and is about 6'3". That made me a little nervous as that meant I would be taking about twice as many strides as he would be in order to stay with him. Eek.

I packed up my running vest Saturday morning with extra fuel, first aid kit and a full water bladder. Since the weather called for rain in the afternoon, I threw in a hat and a rain jacket, although it was sunny and bright. We got texts that Christian was about 30 minutes behind the "most optimistic" timing, so I didn't leave the house until about 10:45 to pick up my guide partner and head to the reservoir in the mountains. 

We bumped along the forest service roads, checked in with our leader, who had finished his 20 mile leg and still looked amazingly fresh, then headed on to the reservoir dam and the aid station we were to start our guide leg to.

And we waited.

The aid station was manned by a volunteer and a race employee, and we chatted, cheered on the runners as they came through, and watched the clouds roll in. 

And we waited.

The volunteer left, and I jumped behind the aid station and poured Cokes and ginger ales.

It started to rain. More runners came through, and finally, over an hour after the revised expected time, we heard from a runner that he thought "someone had fallen" back in the woods, but he just "heard it but didn't see anything" and didn't know who it was. Could that be our guy? It seemed possible that a blind runner could have fallen on single track trail through the woods, so we decided to run up the trail and check it out.

We ran the single-track, decomposed granite trail around the reservoir fingers, getting about a mile back before we saw our team. Fortunately, everyone was safe, just moving slow given the drop-off down to the water, the rolling hills, single track trail, and roots and rocks everywhere.

I ran back to let the rest of the team know (via the race organization's StarLink, which they were kind enough to let me use, as we had no service), that all was well, and poured more Cokes and took care of a hurting runner who dropped the race until my team arrived. We replenished Christian's hydro-flasks, got him some snacks, and switched out guide vests. Soon enough, we were off.

Right back to single track. I led the first mile of downhills, steep and curvy. Christan ran behind me with one hand on my shoulder, and me calling out everything in front of us. "Gentle downhill. Pick your feet up, coming up on roots. Step up here, steeper downhill next. Curving to the left, uphill for 10 yards. Narrow here, steep drop-off to the left." And on and on. I realized I was pretty focused on the trail in front of me, and missed some lower hanging branches that I went under but slapped our poor runner in the head. Great. Eventually, I figured out to be constantly scanning up and down as well as in front, but that first mile was trial and error. 

We popped out of the woods after one small mishap where Christian took a wide step and his foot slid downhill. A little dirt but no damage, fortunately, and he was hanging on to me so he didn't go far. Dave, my partner, was also behind Christian and grabbed him by the vest to keep him from tumbling. We got some relief in a forest service road that wove uphill, but was wide and only moderately washboarded, allowing for a pleasant climb. 

A mile or less later though, and we were back on single-track trail, following the outline of the reservoir again. Dave and I switched off leading, and had several narrow rock areas to squeeze through, ups, and downs and curves. Its beautiful trail and could be great to run. Guiding someone else provides a new level of intensity to the experience.

Christian didn't necessarily love the experience. Single-track, technical trail was tough on him. After a while, he ended up with both hands on our shoulders, and as we progressed through the additional 4 and half miles around the reservoir, he progressively clung tighter and pushed harder on our shoulders. I could feel the extra weight in the soles of my feet with every step.

And then there were the tree falls. Last week there had been incredibly high winds, and there were LOTS of down trees. We had to navigate over tree trunks laying, leaning, or angled across the trail, with or without branch stubs attached. Some were pretty sharp. At one point, I covered a particularly sharp broken branch stub with my hand to protect Christian as he climbed over... only to have him half sit on my hand. Welcome to the intimacy of trail guiding, I guess! At least he didn't puncture himself  -although he did scrape up his back going under a tree on a branch stub I didn't see when I went under.

We also had a whole grove of trees that fell and completely blocked not only the trail, but the surrounding area. It required some serious bushwhacking and literal step-by-single-step instructions to get through.

Several water crossings, a stretch along the side of a river, an open meadow, several bouts of pouring rain, sunshine and we were back on a forest service road. One more short stretch of single-track trail that cut a curve of the road, then back to the road. The road wove uphill but we were able to run stretches. Christian was definitely a little tired at this point and feeling the altitude but made a good go of running stretches and alternating with power hiking for what was his mile 34 of 55. 

Soon enough, we were to the next aid station, where our other ultra runner picked up the guiding. She brought along a professional ultra runner they know who came out at the last minute to provide a second guide for the final 20 miles back. If you are thinking "who can just run 20 miles at the last minute?" the answer is these guys. Amazing.

We got Christian fueled up, restocked, guide bibs switched out, and then cheered him on his way.

As I write this, several more heavy showers have gone through. Latest estimate is that he'll finish about 9:30pm. I'm heading out of here in a few minutes to run the last bit with he and the team and see him finish. This is an incredible feat - blind running technical trail and going for 55 miles. 

Go Christian go!

Epilogue: Eric and I drove down to Garden of the Gods and waited with one of our leaders in the dark for Christian to come through. Two additional guides had hiked up the road a couple miles and were also running down so when I joined the pack for the last two miles, we were an entourage of 5. Brandon and Eric took Brandon and Melissa’s son to the finish.

We rolled through the last of the Garden with one guide out front identifying the problem spots on the trail. Headlamps on in the dark, we had a couple more hills and rocks until a downhill final stretch of pavement. After 54 miles, amazingly, Christian was only only running, but pushing the pace. 10:05 mile, I called out. 9:15 mile pace. 8:15 miles pace.

Final turn, and at 9:51:51pm after a 6am start and 55 grueling miles, Christian crossed the finish line.

This morning he texted. He's considering the Pikes Peak Ascent, maybe in 2026.

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